The “Birdman” Effect
Does Answering the Bat Signal Curse or Revitalize Careers?
Back in March, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice hit theaters for the “summer-movie” season with the hopes of generating over a billion dollars and facilitating the creation of DC Comics’ cinematic universe with the hopes of satisfying global distributors as well as comic book fans. While initially a Superman film and the follow up to 2013’s Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman will also be the eighth live-action film to star the caped crusader, with Ben Affleck becoming the fifth actor to assume the role with the cape and cowl (with apologies to Adam West).
A Tribute to the Dark Knight
To commemorate this event, we decided to see if playing Batman adversely affected the careers of the actors who played him, which you may notice was essentially the plot of the film Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman; we’ll refer to this theory as the Birdman Effect.
We used data from IMDb, OMDb, and TMDb on the filmographies of actors Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Christian Bale along with Ben Affleck to see how starring in a Batman movie affected the critical and popular perceptions of their films before and after portraying Batman on-screen. More specifically, we went through user ratings, critical scores, and other classifications like film budget and actor’s age on the release date so that we could visualize how Batman impacted each actor’s “market value.” After sorting through 290+ movies, we narrowed the field to 160+ films based on data quality.
Five Careers, a Dark Knight, and Keaton’s Revenge
Hover over the dots on the scatter plot to get detailed information about each movie. You can check out the interactive graphic for yourself here.
Crime Fighting Never Gets Old
After evaluating and graphing all the data, we made some interesting observations. First, Batman is old. Or rather, getting to play Batman came only to actors who were already quite established in their careers, averaging the age of 35 when first playing Batman. Ben Affleck is 43, and so his casting is an outlier from the other actor’s. This means actors with household names or quality reputations had the privilege of playing the Dark Knight over the casting of unknown actors, who would likely be waiting tables and tending bar in their spare time.
Next, we interpreted the trends of each actor following his Batman debut and realized that Keaton has had the most diversified career. As previously noted, Michael Keaton hit a career wall with audience popularity after “Batman Returns” in 1992 until recently rebounding with voiceover roles in Pixar’s Cars and Toy Story 3. Rightfully, he followed up those films with starring roles in Iñárritu’s Birdman and Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Meanwhile, Christian Bale had somewhat of the opposite career trajectory and actually improved his ratings with filmgoers after Batman Begins. Finally, George Clooney was largely unaffected and, in spite of the low score of the much-maligned Batman & Robin, he’s continued to find success with audiences well into middle age.
So is there really a Birdman Effect for actors playing Batman? The short answer: sort of. The only actor to really experience a Birdman career besides Keaton was Val Kilmer, whose career never quite recovered from being the first Batman to co-star alongside Robin and don the infamous Batsuit nipples. This shouldn’t discourage fans of Affleck, who at age 43 has the career cache and critical acclaim to rebound from the dismissive critical responses to Batman v. Superman.
This article was originally published in April 2016 at bl.ocks.org.